Is Joe Talbot the next Francis Ford Coppola? Meet the director of The Last Black Man in San Francisco and his leading man, Jimmie Fails.
Most movies set in San Francisco gloss over the City’s gritty, dystopian realities: The housing crisis. The staggering wealth inequality that rewards the rich with luxury penthouses on the Embarcadero while the middle class runs for the suburbs or leaves the Bay Area altogether. Meanwhile, young, predominantly white techies literally step over homeless people during their daily commutes. Take a walk from North Beach to the Financial District — on any given morning, you’ll see only a few black commuters among the shuffle.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the acclaimed new drama from Joe Talbot, a writer-director who actually lives and works here, isn’t afraid to grapple with the rapid gentrification befalling a great American city and the sense of loss that hangs above the skyline like a foggy mist. It’s based on the life of Talbot’s longtime friend, actor Jimmie Fails, making his feature-film debut as a version of himself. Fails, 25, spent his early childhood in the Fillmore home that his grandfather bought in the 1940s. When he was 6 years old, economic woes, among other setbacks, cast his family adrift; Fails moved to the projects.
Fails’ history is a solemn reminder of the erasure of San Francisco’s historically black neighborhoods. It infuses the downbeat narrative of Last Black Man, which stars Fails as a young dreamer obsessed with reclaiming his family’s elegant Victorian in the Fillmore. He lives in Hunters Point, where he’s inseparable from best friend and fellow artsy outsider Montgomery (Yale School of Drama grad Jonathan Majors). In SF’s tonier ZIP codes, the duo encounter irrevocable signs of change: tourists on Segway tours, tipsy tech bros shouting from trolleys, and a snobbish passerby glancing sideways at the black squatter in the neighborhood. Fails essentially becomes a stranger in his own hometown, echoing the experiences of the displaced in gentrifying cities like New York and London, once-thriving artistic incubators and now playgrounds for the rich. All the same, the City has captured Fails’ heart — the camera, with its knowing, careful attention to SF’s winding hillscapes, unabashedly shares in that love.
“Jimmie’s story tapped into something that was happening throughout the country,” says Talbot, 28, who projects the brash self-confidence of someone who knows what they want and how to get it. His teardrop Paul McCartney eyes don’t twinkle; they focus like lasers. “People are losing their homes, both figuratively and literally,” he continues, “and the cities that housed and gave birth to us and helped shape us are changing in ways that are increasingly unfamiliar.”
The garrulous son of Salon.com founder David Talbot and writer Camille Peri met Fails in Precita Park when they were kids. “We get excited about stuff and we will come to each other with a song, a movie or an idea — something that we’ve just seen that made us feel something,” explains Talbot of their dynamic, to which Fails adds, “I think we’re very imaginative people, just in a young sort of way.” While Fails is a quieter presence, the two share an impish sense of humor — not to mention inside jokes they conceal from the magazine editor lady interviewing the mover Italian sandwiches at Cafe Zoetrope on a balmy July afternoon. The significance of the location inside the Sentinel Building — the headquarters of American Zoetrope — wasn’t lost on Talbot, who aspires to create a filmmaking collective headquartered in SF, not unlike the pioneering production company co-founded by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas nearly 50 years ago.
“He’s such a cinephile,” says Caroline von Kuhn, director of artist development at SFFILM, where Talbot has a residency. “It’s such a pretentious word to throw around, but I don’t use that lightly, and I am very selective when I do use it.”
That was von Kuhn’s first impression of him several years ago, when he arrived to an SFFILM financiers’ dinner at Tosca singing the praises of Harold and Maude, the cult 1971 romantic comedy filmed around the Bay Area. “He has the vocabulary of a filmmaker, not just because he skimmed a bunch of references and is alluding to the greats that came before him. … I was like, ‘Who is this guy? Oh my God, we’re going to be friends.’”
Growing up, Talbot would capture video footage of friends, including Fails, on camera. Creativity runs in his DNA: Besides his wordsmith parents, there’s his late grandfather, Lyle Talbot, a performer from Hollywood’s Golden Age who co-founded the Screen Actors Guild, and his uncle, documentary film-maker Stephen Talbot. After dropping out of the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, Talbot continued on his unconventional path directing original movies centered in the city he loves.
While Fails was a student at Archbishop Riordan High School, Talbot cast the teen — and himself — in his first short film, the noirish Last Stop Livermore, which won notice from the San Francisco International Film Festival. “It’s about two friends who go to the suburbs to hang out with these girls, and it sort of becomes a stranger and stranger night as we learn that the suburbs are no place for city kids,” Talbot says. “We’re sort of weirded out, and scurry back to the BART — never been happier in our lives to be on the BART train going back to San Francisco.”
Talbot, inspired by Fails’ powerful story, was determined to bring it to a much bigger screen. In 2014, they launched a “concept trailer” and Kickstarter campaign that raised $78,000 and drummed up excitement in the local media. But it wasn’t enough to get the film off the ground. With the odds seemingly stacked against them — who was going to underwrite a project from an untested director and actor? — Talbot took a spot in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, honing his writing chops. Cut to 2017, and the release of Talbot’s second short featuring Fails, American Paradise, which played at Sundance and picked up Best Narrative Short honors at the Nashville Film Festival.
Then, a breakthrough: Talbot and Fails partnered with an A-list production company (Brad Pitt’s Plan B) and a chic, socially conscious studio (A24, whose hits include the Oscar-winning Moonlight). The pair lived with Talbot’s parents in Bernal Heights for years while working on Last Black Man, which they filmed over 25 days in May 2018. The shooting script, for which Fails earned a story credit, was co-written by Talbot and Rob Richert.
“There was just a lot of pressure to get it done right just because it’s San Francisco,” recalls Fails. “We’re making something that has [the City] in its name. … We still have to live here. We’re still here now. So the movie [better be] good. We were just like, ‘Oh, what the f—, man.’”
Fails delivered an understated, searing performance alongside Majors and San Francisco native Danny Glover, who plays the father of Majors’ character. His alter ego doesn’t say much, but his internal anguish is written all over his face. The audience can’t help but feel his pain, too. “It’s hard for me to revisit some of the things that happened, more emotional things,” says Fails. But it was also cathartic, helping him over-come his previous hang-ups about the house that got away.
Prior to scoring Plan B’s support, Talbot took meetings with cautious producers who suggested casting safe bets such as Michael B. Jordan or Donald Glover instead of Fails, the unknown. Talbot wrote off those skeptics.
“If the financier envisions Michael B. Jordan, then they’re not getting that this is Jimmie’s movie — and the only person who can tell it is Jimmie because he has all the intimate details of an entire life’s worth of material in his bones,” he says. “The thing that makes Jimmie incredibly rare is that he also just happens to be a phenomenal actor…. I can’t think of another first-time performance that I’ve seen in recent years that comes close to what he was able to do.”
Fails got along famously with Glover and Majors, learning from the latter’s Yale-bred, no-nonsense professionalism: “I came up to set late one day and he … punched me in the chest and then he grabbed me and he was like, ‘All right, let’s get to work.’ That’s just how Jonathan is, though. Jonathan’s intense.”
When Last Black Man had its Sundance premiere last January, it triumphed with awards for Best Directing and the Special Jury Prize for Creative Collaboration. The reviews were mostly glowing, with an affection that recalls critical reaction to then-up-and-comers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting. In Rolling Stone, David Frear crowned it the “best movie of the year” and The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis called it “astonishing” and “remarkably, the first feature directed by Talbot.”
Days before its nationwide release on June 7, Last Black Man screened at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco as well as the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, the location of Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting, two other important films about African American life in the Bay. Talbot’s father, who wrote the SF history Season of the Witch, has seen it at least 20 times in theaters. “He raised [me] on stories of old San Francisco and the battles that were fought to establish San Francisco values. The very things that we define ourselves by: liberal city, welcoming city,” Talbot explains.
Despite the changes he documents in Last Black Man, Talbot remains utterly devoted to his hometown — he’s not going Hollywood just yet. In fact, he’s currently preparing the second film in a San Francisco trilogy. It contains elements of noir and sci-fi. As for Fails, who’s signed to the powerhouse Creative Artists Agency, he’s pursuing acting opportunities. He’d love to star in a romantic comedy someday.
Wrapping their interview with the Gazette, Fails told Talbot he wanted to swing by his North Beach office, where his old friend was working that day. They bounded out of Cafe Zoetrope, carrying a torch of hope for a town where artists can still survive, thrive and blaze exciting, new trails.